Inside the AATA’s ambitious plan to spread mass transit beyond Ann Arbor

Well, it wasn’t the library. That was my best guess as the site of the “u196” meeting I was looking for. I had decided at the last minute to check out the group that’s planning a countywide transit system, but no agenda was posted on its website, The March agenda had named the Ann Arbor District Library as the location. But not this time: a library clerk confirmed that no meetings were scheduled there.

Wi-fi, however, is at the library, and I found the minutes of the March meeting of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board posted at The website confirmed that this was indeed the right date for the u196 meeting—but it was to be held at AATA headquarters on South Industrial. No time was mentioned, so I could only assume I’d be very late. Or very early. Sigh. Back down the stairs; back into the car.

The reception area at AATA headquarters was empty, but the door was unlocked. Peeking into the gloom, I was fairly confident I could hear voices. By the time I gathered my courage to creep down the unlit hallway, though, the meeting had ended.

The u196 board isn’t required to announce its meetings: the “u” stands for “unincorporated,” meaning the body does not fall under Michigan’s Open Meetings Act. Though it technically includes all seven members of the AATA board, only three attend any given meeting, so that body never reaches a quorum. And to be fair, when asked AATA staff will graciously notify any member of the public of the meetings.

In any case, the u196 board won’t be in the shadows much longer. It could drop its “u” as early as this summer, when it files the paperwork to become a legal entity under Michigan Act 196, which authorizes public transportation authorities. And it’s sure to be in the spotlight once it starts to build and finance a planned countywide transit system. The five-year first phase, announced in April, includes more frequent buses and longer hours in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, especially on weekends; more door-to-door service for seniors and people with disabilities; and more park-and-ride lots and express bus service for the rest of the county.

The price tag: an estimated $218 million. While most capital and operating expenses are projected to be covered from the existing AATA millage, federal and state grants, and rider fares, the current draft shows a $33 million shortfall. Filling that gap will almost certainly require new local taxes or fees.

My hunt for u196 was surprising, because the transit plan’s advocates have built a communication structure so thorough that it’s easy to view the transition to countywide service as inevitable. Since 2009, when then-new CEO Michael Ford announced plans to investigate the possibilities for such service, the AATA has used $700,000 in federal planning grants to develop a thirty-year vision for transit in Washtenaw County. It has hosted dozens of public forums, created promotional videos, and lined up big-name endorsements. Ann Arbor and other municipalities have already appointed representatives to the would-be countywide authority and informally stated their intention to be part of it.

A highlight of the effort was a countywide survey of several hundred people. Given three options, most participants chose the most expansive scenario, called “Smart Growth.” The entire thirty-year plan envisions spending $465 million in capital improvements, plus $52 million in annual expenses, to build and operate a comprehensive, multimodal system that includes not only greatly expanded bus service, but also a “high-capacity transit” line on Washtenaw and commuter rail to Detroit and Howell.

Former county administrator Bob Guenzel strongly supports the effort. “I really believe that for humane reasons, for economic reasons, we need a countywide transportation system,” he says. “A lot of groups have come together, trying to come up with something that is unique and suitable for the community, and also something we can afford.”

Yet to Ann Arbor city councilmember Stephen Kunselman, it’s all smoke and mirrors, concealing what he calls an “extreme experiment.” He sees AATA’s decision to plan the system before it discusses funding as a calculated deception. “They said [to the public], ‘Would you like increased transit service?’ They never told them how they were going to pay for it. It’s like saying, ‘Would you like candy?'”

Kunselman is leading a charge against the plan, which would dissolve the AATA and integrate it into a countywide authority. While the Ann Arbor City Council voted in March to approve a four-party agreement with the AATA, Ypsilanti, and Washtenaw County that would create a framework for the transition, the lengthy deliberations and split 7–4 vote signaled something less than inevitability going forward.

“I don’t feel all of the issues and concerns were resolved,” says councilmember Jane Lumm, who joined Kunselman, Marcia Higgins, and Mike Anglin in opposition. “I believe we should have amended the agreement to ensure that [Ann Arbor] had majority control” of the new board. Though city residents are a minority in the county, they would provide most of the new authority’s local tax funding, because Ann Arbor’s existing 2.5 mill transit tax would be reassigned to the countywide system.

Kunselman argues that there’s no real demand for increased services—and even if there were, an expansion of the AATA’s current structure would be sufficient to meet it. He notes that AATA already offers services outside the city on a contract basis and could do so on a larger scale if it wished. Creating a countywide system, he charges, is “irresponsible, it’s very expensive, and it illustrates a sense of arrogance and elitism [on AATA’s part] … Because they aren’t actually working with the citizen body [by not] telling them it’s going to cost a lot more money.”

Councilmember Sabra Briere believes that Kunselman’s concern about the countywide structure is moot, and that the question of equity has been addressed. “There were choices made [about the Act 196 structure] that made sense to the people deciding on that option,” Briere says. “Other options weren’t in front of the city council. If people felt strongly, they should weigh in, [and] that should have happened early enough to impact the outcome.”

According to Michael Benham, ­AATA’s coordinator for the project, the u196 board has fifteen representatives from seven districts. Based on the formula of one representative per 32,000 residents, Ann Arbor should have four seats on the board. In recognition of its much more generous funding, however, the city has seven seats—enough to slide all seven current AATA members over onto the new body.

“I don’t think anyone wants Ann Arbor to dominate, including Ann Arbor,” Benham says, noting that city council voted down Kunselman’s amendment to increase the city’s representation on the u196 board. Providing services on contract, he adds, “is inherently an unstable arrangement. It’s really subject to funding available on a year-to-year basis. That makes it difficult for us to plan ahead.”

Though the city won’t have outright control of the countywide system, Briere argues, it will benefit in proportion to its contribution. “All lines run to Ann Arbor,” she points out. “I’m seeing equity. They don’t pay as much, they don’t get as much. We pay more, we get more.”

“A millage with organized opposition almost never passes,” says Washtenaw County Clerk Larry Kestenbaum. “The default vote for any tax increase is always No. If people are motivated enough to have yard signs and literature [opposing a tax], people who are inclined to vote against it anyway feel like there is also [an] argument against it.” Kestenbaum’s point was illustrated dramatically in 2009, when Albert Berriz, CEO of mega-landlord McKinley, came out against a countywide educational “enhancement” millage. McKinley contributed $100,000 to an opposition campaign, and the tax went down in flames.

Berriz isn’t taking a position on a possible new countywide transit millage. With the state legislature considering bills that might open new funding options, he says, it’s too soon to commit to any one. But he’s very positive about the transit plan in concept. “I think people often underestimate the impact regional transportation can have on job creation,” he says. “A well-conceived countywide transportation package will be helpful in terms of employees and employers. It is part of the fabric of creating jobs.”

Berriz and Bob Guenzel co-chaired the AATA’s financial task force. After several delays, the group finally released its report in February. It did not recommend a specific funding structure, pending legislation in Lansing, but the task force was able to determine what the first five years of the thirty-year countywide plan would cost—and to come up with an idea that could cut any required millage by half.

That idea, tempering some of the enthusiasm of the visioning sessions, separated some of the requested services into a “private funding” category. A downtown circulator bus, the “high-capacity transit” on Washtenaw Ave., and the two commuter rail projects were all removed from the public funding equation. Though still nominally part of the transit plan, they would proceed only if other organizations stepped up to provide the money.

“I’m not necessarily anti-millage,” says Berriz, pointing to his support of the Greenbelt tax in 2003. “Unlike [the case of] the school bond, they’ve [AATA] done their due diligence.” And, he adds, if the new 196 board accepts the task force’s recommendations—including fare increases averaging fifty cents per ride—it should be able to finance the plan’s first five years with a .5 mill countywide property tax, rather than the 1 mill figure floated in last year’s survey.

Not that anyone is officially proposing a specific tax yet. “We didn’t recommend a millage,” says Guenzel. “We talked about what the equivalent would be. It’s a good jumping-off point.”

The unknown in the equation is the transit legislation circulating in Lansing. One bill in the state house would greatly expand the powers of regional transit authorities, potentially siphoning off existing AATA funding. Another would give regional transit authorities the power to raise funds by imposing local vehicle registration fees.

Once money is on the table, Kunselman believes, opposition to the plan will harden. “People say, ‘I support transit,'” he says, “but there has not been a politician yet who says, ‘I support a tax increase.'”

Yet as a resident of and voter in ­Washtenaw County, Briere says, she would vote for a .5 mill tax if it were on the ballot. “I think that as a community we choose to pay taxes for things that benefit our neighbors, because by benefiting our neighbors the community itself improves,” she says, “and that having adequate transit makes this community work better.”

Other councilmembers are somewhat more tentative than Briere on a millage—even while being more supportive than Kunselman of the AATA plan. “Integrating jurisdictions with a robust transit system will service everyone throughout the county, and will in particular be a benefit to Ann Arbor,” says councilmember Christopher Taylor. And yet, he adds, “I don’t know that I would [support a .5 mill levy]. A variety of factors are involved. I might, when the time comes, take a position on it, but I don’t know for sure.”

The pragmatic politician has little reason to commit to a millage today anyway. Waiting for legislation to move through state government may seem foolhardy, but the package of transportation-related bills now before the state house has the potential to greatly impact the way transportation authorities in Michigan are funded.

House Bill 5309, introduced in January with the support of Governor Snyder, is a collection of seventeen pieces of transportation legislation that could create an array of different ways to pay for regional transit. While the proposal to give transit authorities the power to raise funds through vehicle registration fees could provide new funding options, another change, creating multicounty transportation authorities, could also drain funding the AATA has always relied upon.

“Right now, federal funding goes directly to the AATA,” says Berriz. “If a new entity is created, basically, that money would go to the regional entity and then it could come back to the AATA. The question becomes would the new entity reduce, take from, or eliminate the federal funding [that now comes to the AATA].”

The bills may have the support of Governor Snyder, but as Briere points out, it’s an election year. Depending upon the priorities and temperament of representatives looking at the politics of their own districts, the pace of a particular bill could be greatly accelerated—or even halted. In any case, city council will get another chance to debate the issue before the final funding decision is made. Once the 196 board’s articles of incorporation are written and approved, all municipalities in the county will have thirty days to opt out. A few out-county townships have already declared their intention to do so.

The remaining participants will then work through their district representatives and the financial task force to determine a funding structure. If and when funding is secured, AATA will essentially disband—and no one will ever have to hunt for the u196 board again. No longer “u”, it will emerge from the shadows as a well-financed force for regional transit.